A few months ago, you could have predicted that Alexis Sanchez would be playing in Saturday’s Manchester derby although it appeared more likely that he would be playing in blue, not red. In the January transfer window Sanchez surprised many by choosing United over City, turning down the opportunity to win his first Premier League winners’ medal.
Sanchez was labelled a mercenary for that choice, but it’s far too simplistic a way to look at the situation. Both clubs were prepared to pay the Chile international more than Arsenal, yet he only stood the chance of being a star at one of them. At City he would likely have faded in to the background, possibly even struggling for playing time. He knew he could be one of the main men at United. City have had the title wrapped up for mont,hs so what use is collecting a winners’ medal for a title to which you didn’t contribute?
Sanchez had talked about playing for Manchester United for years before the club ever put an offer in for him, and he was even pictured in a United training top a decade ago.
City supporters were likely disappointed to lose out on the talented forward, especially to rivals United, but Sanchez has done little to make them regret his decision so far. If Jose Mourinho expected Sanchez to arrive and transform United’s results immediately, he would be disappointed. His form has been average at best over the past few months, although did claim a goal and assist for himself in the team’s most recent win over Swansea. If he was unpopular in Arsenal’s dressing room, as reports suggest, it’s clear he’s having no such problems at United given how he was mobbed by his teammates when his goal went in last Saturday.
Hector Bellerin hinted that an issue Sanchez had at Arsenal was his desperation to win and be the best, which sometimes puts too much pressure on those playing alongside him.
“He’s a player who always wants to win,” said Bellerin. “He demands from everyone and sometimes it can be quite too much. But the good thing about him is he just wants to win; it doesn’t matter who he’s playing for.” This is just the sort of mentality that Mourinho requires from his players. He has said that Sanchez is always the first one out on the training ground and has no doubts that we’ll see a better player next season.
Given how differently Mourinho and Arsene Wenger set up their teams, it’s little surprise it’s taking Sanchez time to adapt. He’s only played 11 games for United so far, which isn’t long to adjust to a new style and different faces on the pitch.
“He’s not a kid; he’s a lad with many years of football and many years of experience,” Mourinho said earlier this month. “I don’t think a player from a club like Barcelona and a national team like Chile is easy. It brings pressure. I am sure next season will be even better than this. That’s normal.”
On Saturday afternoon as Sanchez walks out in front of the Etihad crowd, he’ll likely be singled out for even more abuse than many of his teammates, which is saying something on derby day. But this is an excellent opportunity for the player to make himself a red hero.
City will win the league if they beat United, which will be one of the lowest days in the memory of many supporters if it happens. Any United player who can delay City’s title win for even a week, meaning they don’t have to watch the players and supporters celebrate the earliest-ever Premier League title win, will be adored by United fans.
Sanchez is an incredible player who has proven himself in England. He’s yet to do that at United but if he scores a winner against City on Saturday, it will certainly be considered a step in the right direction. With the FA Cup semifinal against Spurs still to come — another opponent who will make him feel less than welcome — Sanchez has a couple of big occasions to prove his worth before the season ends, especially if United reach the final.
Yet for now all eyes are on the Etihad clash, where it’s up to Sanchez to earn some brownie points from the fans and spoil City’s party.
Scott is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.